For much of the past two years, businesses have been looking ahead to an eventual return to the office – a return that has been frequently delayed and disrupted by the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with some employees resistant to returning, companies are looking for new options to entice employees back. It may not be a return to the office at all, but instead a movement towards an entirely new way of working together.
While complications from the pandemic continue to disrupt plans, we’ve reached a phase of relative stability where major businesses are now investing heavily in physical workspaces once again. Technology leaders have recently announced plans to spend heavily on new offices, including Google’s announced $1 billion purchase of a campus-like workspace in London.
These companies are not simply going back to their old offices or investing in workspaces that aim to recreate the pre-pandemic status quo. Even as we gain distance from the peak of the pandemic, there’s no denying that the way employees work, and what they expect from their employers and offices, has changed forever.
The emergence of hybrid work during the pandemic has given employees more power over where, when, and how they work. As a result, employers have learned that they must provide a flexible experience for workers if they want to attract and retain top talent.
This shift towards flexibility is clearly reflected in the approach major corporations are taking with new office spaces. One thing is for certain: the concept of the office as a central headquarters – where employees work at their designated desks, follow rigid schedules and rules, and come in from 9 to 5 every day of the week – is an outdated vision.
Some businesses have downsized their physical workspaces in order to reflect the reality of hybrid work, where employees come and go depending on their schedules and preferences. Others are investing in several smaller “collaboration spaces” in lieu of one centralized office.
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy to a return to the office, of course. But one thing is true across the board: companies who do invest in physical workspaces are completely rethinking the way those spaces are used.
Take Google, for example. Though this technology giant has far greater resources than most companies, their priorities still reflect the changes that medium and small businesses are adjusting to.
“We believe that the future of work is flexibility,” wrote Ronan Harris, Google UK’s managing director, in the company’s announcement of their new London office. “Whilst the majority of our UK employees want to be on-site some of the time, they also want the flexibility of working from home a couple days a week. Some of our people will want to be fully remote. Our future UK workplace has room for all of those possibilities.”
The post goes on to explain how Google’s new office will promote flexibility – with more collaborative desk set-ups, flexible “team pods” that can be reconfigured based on the needs of specific teams, and outdoor covered spaces that emphasize employee wellness.
Smaller tech companies are taking a similar approach. Though organizations are, on average, expanding the square footage of their physical offices, the occupancy of those workspaces are still expected to remain low.
As they provide more space for fewer employees, companies are adopting a more agile approach, relying on “hot-desking” and other flexible strategies to maximize the efficiency of their workplaces and provide in-office workers with the most collaborative and productive experiences possible.
At the same time, many organizations are understandably anxious to invest too heavily in physical workspaces for hybrid workers. After all, how can they guarantee that employees will actually want to come into the office, after they’ve grown accustomed to the benefits of remote work over the past two years?
One recent statistic provides a convincing answer to this question: according to a study from Robin Powered, when an employee had a positive experience in just their first office visit, they come to the office 10% more often than employees who had a negative experience.
Employers can no longer sell the idea that employees need to be in the office in order to work at a high level. If they want in-person collaboration to be a central part of their company culture, they need to provide workspaces that energize and delight their workers. Whether they reconfigure their current office, or adopt smaller collaboration hubs, companies should give employees a significant voice in their decision-making process. Centering the needs and experience of their employees will be a deciding factor in whether the return to office is a success—or a complete flop.